MORE

Jersey West

Another tale of terror from the front page of the Daily News: Guess what? Those rascals downtown at City Hall have launched a sneak attack — by low-income apartments — upon the sorely-tried San Fernando Valley. Appropriately, the article appeared on Pearl Harbor Day.

"Much of the growth is targeted for middle-income areas, which would dramatically alter parts of the San Fernando Valley," the story goes, describing a staff proposal before the city Planning Commission to outline city areas whose zoning permits more apartment building. The notion that this is a hostile action seems to originate with Bob Scott of the City Planning Commission, a Woodland Hills attorney who happens to be sworn to uphold Los Angeles while frequently arguing for its dissolution. Possibly, he sees himself as the Jefferson Davis of the urban secession to come. Said Scott of the city-staff apartment conspiracy, "The process is like a runaway train."

Maybe not. Scott forgets that not just this proposal, but all new construction must be approved by both the Planning Commission and the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee. Moreover, most of those possible Valley apartment sites are already zoned for apartments. What’s new is that the planners now have "made construction of affordable housing in the form of apartments" a priority instead of a possibility. Which, in practice, sometimes means mixing up poorer working people with middle-class people. This is an idea some of the latter find appalling.

Councilman Hal Bernson, the Valley loyalist who chairs the potent Planning and Land Use Management Committee, called the planning staff’s apartment idea "a non-binding proposal" and said, "Just because someone in the staff of the planning department decided it might be a good idea, doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily let someone build a lot more apartments in the Valley." Or that if such apartments are built, they will include many low-income units.

But Bernson concedes that the city planners have a rationale for their suggestions. Housing in Los Angeles hasn’t been this scarce since the post–World War II years, and the real scarcity is in low-income units. An August report from Washington’s Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found a shortfall of 300,000 low-income housing units in Los Angeles County, making it, along with Orange County, the most housing-scarce region in the nation. According to the News, half that county shortfall is in the City of Los Angeles.

Since L.A. is pretty much built out, new low-income housing can only mean apartments and condos. But the homeowner groups that also happen to dominate secession politics consider such housing synonymous with neighborhood decline. Halting, or at least isolating, the low-income, multi-unit spread — or, as one scholar quoted by the News put it, excluding "certain socioeconomic groups by prohibiting apartments’’ — might actually become a key secession issue.

Consider these figures: While 60 percent of the entire Los Angeles population are already renters, 50 percent of the Valley remains single-family housing — but much of that stock sits on multiple-unit-zoned property.

Many Valley homeowners will want to roll back R-2 and R-3 ratings to R-1. That would be very difficult to push through in a majority-renter city.

But wait. If the Valley splits off, its citizens could revamp all zoning and planning. At the same time, the new city could further split into ever-more exclusive divisions, gated like Hidden Hills, next to seedy commercial and high-density urban catch-alls like Van Nuys. Indeed, the Valley might then fulfill its suburban destiny by becoming something very much like Los Angeles’ own New Jersey. You could even rename the subway to North Hollywood the Mulholland Tunnel.

What a concept: the Garden State in the Golden State. Not that America’s fifth-smallest and third-largest states don’t already have things in common. After all, each has a coastline, and each draws the infinite contempt of New Yorkers. There’s also the shared dependence on the automobile and the many consequent limited-access highways. (I don’t say "freeways" because many of New Jersey’s are not free.) Oh yes, and the imperious shopping malls.

But the very name "California" still connotes expanse, freedom, while New Jersey is an ingrown residential patchwork of towns, boroughs, villages, townships. In truth, parts of it are highly livable. It’s a place whose motto might be, according to one wag, "It’s better than you thought.’’

But many find it suffocating. Here was where suburbia was invented at the century’s dawn: where the "bedroom borough" culture, lacking amenities for practically everyone over high-school age, was born. Here — apart from large, crumbling cities like Newark — is found the worst-of-both-worlds provincialism of big-boss, small-town-Republican politics, where invisible social barricades are exactly aligned with legal urban borderlines.

Such a snug geography can breed chauvinism and worse. You saw this a few years ago in affluent Glen Ridge, where a gaggle of high school boys convicted of gang-raping a retarded girl got the broad moral support that might have been accorded the town’s own space-shuttle crew. Okay, this was an extreme example. But it wasn’t uncharacteristic of a domain whose major monument is Paramus Mall, whose greatest living cultural figure is Billy Joel. Suburban New Jersey exists; some of it is survivable. But who would embrace the entity made up of Essex, Bergen and Hudson counties as a future social model? Who? Those who want to break up Los Angeles might.

Not that they’ve yet come out and said it. Nor can I yet prove that key Valley, Mar Vista and Harbor secessionists are hirelings of the Garden State’s Trenton political machine. Or even of the Republican Club of Bergenfield.

But the Los Angeles secessionist ideal generally holds that the highest form of human existence obtains only in small communities of similar individuals who own houses. Early Jersey developers could get away with calling such communities "exclusive". A similar impulse to isolate neighborhood clusters seems to lie behind the Los Angeles–breakup movement.

Bob Scott virtually proclaimed this in a November 11 L.A. Times op-ed: "There is little or no connection between the needs of Sylmar and the leadership of San Pedro, or between the goals of South Central and the champions of the Westside.’’ On one level, this is just absurd — you could say exactly the same sort of thing about London — "There is no connection between the leadership of Bloomsbury and the goals of Hammersmith’’ — and it would mean just as little. What really connects such communities is the fact that they are part of the same great city.

The statement is also racially and socially supercharged: San Pedro is a largely white, middle-class enclave, and Sylmar is working-class and largely Hispanic; South Central is Latino, black and working-class, while the Westside, again, is predominately white middle-class.

So when you idealize the municipal isolation of such areas, you are, in effect, arguing for segregation of the rich and white from less affluent people of color: Give each category its own communities, and let everyone fend for themselves. Sound familiar? Instant Jersey. Vocal, upscale residents would be able to delimit their neighborhoods into bosky villages, isolated from nearby urban grit. As Scott put it, "Elected officials are [thus] more likely to share the vision of the local community." Including, of course, its isolation.

How far could this thing extend? Could all of Los Angeles be overrun by Jersey West? Valley VOTE, the group collecting signatures for a study on Valley independence, claims it has enough names to put its study proposal on the ballot. Scott cited 11 other potential breakup cities; I can think of several more. Los Angeles City Council president John Ferraro grimly joked that there might someday be nothing left of L.A. but City Hall and Times-Mirror Square.

Over this new, atomized L.A., New Jersey suburbia would retain one tremendous advantage. Dissolved into bitty burbs, L.A. would no longer be able to support a symphony, opera, the pop scene, theater and night life. It would leave the more populous end of California without a cultural and intellectual center north of San Diego. But Bergenfield residents? Why, they can always drive to Manhattan.